Swift in Space

Barbara Kennedy and Dana Bauer
January 20, 2005

Swift Launch Timeline

February 1, 2005: Swift sees Pinwheel Galaxy.

January 24, 2005: Swift mission images the birth of a black hole.

multicolored blob on black background depicting supernova Cassiopeia A
NASA's Swift Observatory

First-light image from the Swift X-ray Telescope, of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. This object is the remnant of a gigantic stellar explosion that occurred in about 1680. The explosion heated the surrounding gas and the remnants of the star to temperatures of several million degrees Celsius. The hot gas has been expanding and cooling for the past 325 years. This image is a true X-ray color image: the lowest X-ray energies are shown in red, the medium energies are in green, and the highest energies are in blue

First Light!

On January 5, 2005, the Swift X-ray Telescope (XRT), saw its first light, capturing a dazzling image of Cassiopeia A, a well-known supernova remnant in the Milky Way galaxy.

Introduction: A New Space Observatory

Every day, deep in space, a black hole is born. How do we know? Its birth is heralded by a high-energy explosion called a gamma-ray burst. Defense satellites discovered evidence of these short-lived bursts in the 1960s. Since then, catching them from beginning to end has been an almost serendipitous process: telescopes must be pointed at the right corner of the universe at the right second.

Until now, that is. A new space observatory called Swift, launched into Earth's orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 20, 2004, will help researchers gather more information about the origin and intensity of gamma-ray bursts and their relationship to black holes. Once it detects a burst—even in its "peripheral vision"—the observatory will quickly swivel to allow its onboard telescopes to image the full show, explosion through afterglow.

"Swift is not an acronym," says John Nousek, the Penn State astronomer who is leading the project in conjunction with a NASA team. Instead, the name of the satellite describes the feature that distinguishes it from its gamma-ray-seeking predecessors: it's ability to move quickly, more like a bird than a bus-sized hunk of metal. Swift can turn on a dime, gather the different wavelengths of radiation—gamma, ultraviolet and x rays—emerging from the burst, and relay that information almost immediately to researchers on the ground.

The nearly real-time piping of data to the ground also sets Swift apart. "When a burst is detected, lots of people's beepers will go off," says Nousek. Astronomers around the world will know to train their telescopes on the area where the burst is taking place.

Much of the development of the $31 million Swift project took place over a four-year period at Penn State, where two of the three telescopes were built. Now that Swift is in orbit, a Penn State team, led by Nousek and astronomer Margaret Chester, will control its daily activity and monitor the flow of data from a Mission Operations Center just three miles from the University Park campus. During its two-year mission, Swift is expected to observe more than 200 gamma-ray bursts—the most comprehensive study to date.

In the following dispatches, filed in November 2004, science writer Barbara Kennedy joins John Nousek and other Penn State scientists at Kennedy Space Center, and Dana Bauer reports from Mission Control in State College as the Swift team prepares for launch.

Dispatch 1: The Swift Mission

Saturday, November 20, 2004

—Barbara Kennedy

John Nousek standing outside the visitor’s center at the Kennedy Space Center.
Barbara Kennedy

John Nousek stands outside the visitor's center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida before the scheduled launch of the Swift observatory.

Excitement is building at the Kennedy Space Center on the day before the launch of a new NASA space observatory named "Swift," which will be controlled by Penn State from its Mission Operations Center near the University Park campus. After months of delays caused by four devastating hurricanes, it looks like tomorrow finally will be the day the Penn State team will take over control of the satellite after Swift separates from its booster rocket and enters Earth orbit.

Swift is designed to reveal the mysterious origin of gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful known explosions in the universe except for the original Big Bang that theorists believe occurred at its birth. Swift earned its name by being built to swing "swiftly" into position, faster than any space telescope of its kind, to capture the rapidly fading "afterglow" signals in X-ray, visible, and ultraviolet wavelengths, which linger after the lightning-quick gamma-ray flashes disappear. "The underlying nature and cause of gamma-ray bursts have been among the leading mysteries of astrophysics for the past 30 years," says John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, who is the director of mission operations for the Swift observatory and is at Cape Canaveral to observe the launch.

In addition to staffing the control center for the observatory, the Penn State team also played a major role in the international teams that built and tested two of Swift's three telescopes. "We are proud to have been selected by NASA to play such an important role in this mission," Nousek says.

Dispatch 2: Swift Launch is Delayed—Kennedy Space Center

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

—Barbara Kennedy/em>

Cape Canaveral, Fla.—It is 2 in the morning, and two NASA guys just knocked on the door here in the newsroom at the Kennedy Space Center to tell me that the mission has been scrubbed. They said there was a problem with the telemetry. At about 1:30 a.m., the protective walls around the rocket were scheduled to be rolled away from the launch pad, so I guess that is when the problem was discovered. Rats. Everything had been going so smoothly.

outside of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
Barbara Kennedy

NASA's Kennedy Space Center

Earlier yesterday afternoon, you could feel and hear the emotional electricity here at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where scientists, students, engineers and their families gathered for a celebration before NASA launches its newest astronomy satellite. The celebration is about their triumphant achievement of having moved the innovative space observatory named "Swift" from their imaginations to the launch pad in only five years. The electricity is about their hopes and fears for the launch. If all goes well, Swift will be hurtled into space at speeds nine times faster than a speeding bullet and 20 times faster than the speed of sound so it can study gamma-ray explosions that in a few seconds release more energy than the Sun produces in its entire lifetime.

John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, who is the director of Swift's Mission Operations Center near Penn State's University Park campus, is at Cape Canaveral to observe the launch with about eight other members of Swift's Penn State team. Most team members who have responsibilities for flight operations are back at University Park, preparing to take control of the observatory as soon as it separates from its booster rocket.

"We did the final check-out of the instruments four days ago, so now the mission is completely in the hands of the launch team for a while," said Nousek, who is enjoying a rare break since he began working on the proposal for Swift with Niel Gehrels, now Swift's principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA selected Swift to be funded over about 30 competing proposals for other types of space observatories.

"Before I left University Park, I reminded the Penn State flight operations team of the importance of staying calm and reacting efficiently, no matter what happens," Nousek said. While Nousek is in Florida, Margaret Chester, the leader for ground operations, and Thomas Taylor, the program manager for Swift at Penn State, will take turns leading the flight-operations team at the Mission Operations Center. "We have trained to handle surprises and to solve unanticipated problems, so if surprises happen we are ready to handle them," Chester said.

Among the scientific surprises Swift is expected to deliver are clues about the origin of gamma-ray bursts, which occur about once a day in unpredictable locations on the sky and are the most powerful explosions ever observed in the universe. Swift is the first NASA observatory with multiple powerful telescopes for detecting radiation in more than one wavelength -- an innovation that will help scientists pinpoint the location of the massive explosions in both space and time to learn how far they are from Earth.

"Everyone on this international team is sharing the same hope right now—that the launch will be successful and the mission will be successful," said Joanne Hill, a Penn State scientist who works on the software that helps Swift's X-ray telescope work well with the other parts of the observatory, including the telescopes that detect ultraviolet, optical and gamma rays. Swift's lead partners include nine scientific institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. "Our hopes are high for a successful launch, but we know there are no guarantees in this business," Hill said.

Once the excitement of the launch is over, the excitement of scientific discovery can begin. The Penn State team at the Mission Operations Center will have its work cut out for it during the next month or two, when it will be working in shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while it brings Swift's systems up to full operation so it can provide new data to eager scientists around the world. But first the observatory must be launched successfully.

Dispatch 3: Still on the Ground

Thursday, November 18, 2004

—Barbara Kennedy/em>

outside of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
Barbara Kennedy

NASA's Kennedy Space Center

The satellite named Swift has been slowed once again on its journey into space. This time, the delay was caused, ironically, by the self-destruct system of its booster rocket, which got a less-than-perfect score during a routine test the morning it was supposed to launch this past Wednesday. Swift can't launch until the safety engineers are sure they can blow it up. If Swift's launch rocket happens to veer off course, the engineers will need to destroy it so it won't destroy people nearby. Those are the same people whose blue-roofed houses looked so cheerily tropical as I was flying into the area—until I realized, with dismay, that the color was not of blue shingles but of blue-plastic tarps hiding the destruction caused by recent storms.

Like these houses, the tall Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center looks like a hurricane hit it. In fact, three hurricanes did hit it within two months early this fall, delaying Swift's launch by many weeks and ripping off so many rectangular pieces of its outer skin that you could see right through the building. Now, with the patched-tile look of an early Space Shuttle, the building stands battered but not defeated, still dominating this flat landscape for miles around. It also stands as symbol of the determination required by the creators of this new space observatory, including NASA, Penn State, and other scientific institutions on Swift's international team.

"Of course delays are disappointing, but the important thing is to get the job done right no matter how long it takes," says Penn State's John Nousek, the mission operations director for Swift, who is here for the launch along with some of the Penn State students and scientists who helped to build the observatory. Nousek's team will control Swift from its Mission Operations Center near the University Park campus—but first Swift has to get into space.

With long, intense workdays both behind them and ahead of them, members of Nousek's team are finding ways to cope while waiting here in Florida during these recent launch delays. Many of them are staking out strategic positions at the area's beaches and bistros now because, during Swift's first month or so in orbit, they will need to control and monitor the operation of the $250-million instrument 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Swift will not be ready to be left unattended in its early phases of operation, so I have asked the members of our team not to plan any trips for the holidays coming up in the next couple of months," Nousek said.

David Morris, a second-year graduate student who has helped to program and calibrate one of Swift's three telescopes—the X-ray telescope—is among the Penn Staters at the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch. "I am looking forward to getting back to Penn State because my first shift at the Mission Operations Center likely will be when Swift is scheduled to begin transmitting data for the first time, which will be a real thrill," says Morris, who had worked on a space observatory larger than Swift before he came to Penn State. "Working on a smaller team here is great because people feel a lot more personal responsibility, so you can count on everyone to work really hard to support the mission and other members of the team, both here and in other countries," Morris says. As a student at Penn State, Morris has traveled to Germany to test Swift's X-ray telescope at the Mac Planck Institute, which is one of the few X-ray-calibration facilities in the world. "Swift is a tremendous mission for a graduate student's career because we expect to be doing really new science at a really fast pace," Morris says.

For now, Morris, Nousek, and other members of the Swift team must continue to endure Florida's sunny skies and 70+-degree temperatures while they wait for NASA's engineers and the Air Force team in charge of flight safety to clear Swift's launch rockets for take-off.

Dispatch 4: Swift in State College&mdash:Missions Operation Center at Penn State

Saturday, November 20, 2004

—Dana Bauer

Penn State sticker and sign on door
Annemarie Mountz

The Mission Operations Center was open only to essential personnel during the launch of the Swift Observatory.

Last night—the night before the launch of the Swift satellite—Marg Chester made two sheet-cake-sized pans of rich, buttery coffee cake. "I had to do something to keep myself from going crazy," she says. "The temptation was to stay up all night, but we have to be alert and ready to work today." So Chester, a Penn State astronomer and a lead scientist on the Swift project, made cake and went to bed early.

This morning, a couple dozen scientists and engineers, many of whom have been on duty since 4 a.m., are hovering around the kitchen at the Swift project's Bristol Park facility, two miles from Penn State's University Park campus. They're drinking coffee from a 20-gallon box container, munching on the coffee cake, and using napkins to prevent cinnamony crumbs from falling on their nicer-than-usual attire—mostly button-downs and khakis, in one case a cummerbund and bowtie. "Marg doesn't mess around when she's baking," says her husband Doug Chester, a lawyer and consultant on the project. "This stuff goes right to the coronary arteries."

Chester, wearing a long skirt and a white polo shirt with the Swift emblem on the left side, isn't messing around today, either. She's got tabs on the whole place. Right now she's running between the Mission Operations Center (MOC) in the back of the building and a make-shift press room in the front of the building, where a small crew of reporters are waiting to record the local reaction to a launch taking place a thousand miles away. In the MOC, a slew of people from Penn State, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, General Dynamics, the company that built and wired the Swift spacecraft, and Omitron, Inc., the developer of the MOC's computer systems, are gearing up for the launch. The NASA crew at Cape Canaveral in Florida will get Swift in the air, but once it's in orbit, the crew in State College will command it.

The office given to the press today really belongs to John Nousek, the astronomer leading the Swift project at Penn State. Nousek is in Florida for the launch, but his presence is felt here in the form of a screen saver, a scan of a drawing of him made by his daughter—lots of curly, squiggly hair, big glasses, a big grin, and a caption that reads "listen to the boss." In Nousek's office, we're watching live footage of NASA engineers working at their computers at the Kennedy Space Center. The scene reminds me of the movie Apollo 13, except the equipment is obviously 21st century and there are lots more women on the team. There's another TV with a video feed from down the hall showing us the activity inside the MOC: The scientists and engineers, the same ones I saw eating coffee cake in the kitchen, are talking to each other and staring at screens. Not too exciting.

group of men gathered around a small table
Annemarie Mountz

The Mission Operations crew at Penn State University Park was set and ready to go before the launch of the Swift Observatory.

For the most part, we're in wait mode here in State College. And it's been an extended, nerve-wracking wait mode - hurricanes in Florida pushed the launch from early fall into November and, just this week, with everyone and everything literally at the launch pad waiting to go, minor technical snags put things on hold for a couple more days. This crew is ready to get Swift off the ground. They're excited and, yes, a little tired and most of them still have months—years, if things go well—of work ahead of them. "When the satellite is launched, that's when our work really begins," says Chester. That's when the science that Nousek and Chester and a team of other researchers proposed to do begins. They're going to use Swift to capture gamma ray bursts from the edges of the universe.

Today's launch is set for 12:10, one minute after kick-off at the Penn State-Michigan State game in Beaver Stadium, just a few miles away. At T-101 minutes, Tom Taylor, program manager for Swift and a research engineer with the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, walks into Nousek's office and tells us that they're putting the fuel in the rockets down at Cape Canaveral.

Chester looks thrilled. On a table in front of me, she has unfurled an incredibly detailed list of events that are supposed to take place shortly after Swift launches and hits its orbit. The key moments are separation from the rocket at 80 minutes, communicating with the TDRSS satellite system above Hawaii at 81 minutes, the opening of the satellites solar panels at 83 minutes, and communicating with the groundstation in Malindi, Kenya at 131 minutes.

The sequence was prepared by Lisa Nelson, the lead operations engineer from General Dynamics. Nelson and a team of engineers from her company are in State College to make sure Swift gets off the ground and running. "Then they hand the keys over to Penn State," Taylor had explained to me weeks ago. On the TV with the video feed from the MOC, I can see Nelson pacing back and forth in the center of the room wearing headphones and a talking into a mouthpiece.

The next hour and a half slides by quickly, with NASA TV showing footage of the rocket on the launch pad, interviews with the lead scientists, and animations of gamma-ray bursts. Soon the launch countdown drops to numbers that seem bearable—20 minutes, 14 minutes, and then a ten-minute hold, six minutes, four minutes, and, finally, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ....

At 12:16 p.m. the rocket blasts off and streams across the perfect blue sky. A cheer goes up from the MOC in State College. Phone calls are made, bottles of champagne are uncorked, and quickly, very quickly, everyone switches into work mode. "I gotta go now. I can't talk now. I gotta get to work," says one of the young Swift scientists into his cell phone.

Dispatch 5: Swift Launch is Successful

Saturday, November 20, 2004

—Barbara Kennedy/em>

launch pad
David Burrows

Tower rollback before morning launch

Before dawn on its last day on Earth, the Swift space observatory is released from its cage at Launch Complex 17 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. As the scaffolding surrounding it slowly rolls away, the satellite with the name of a nimble bird makes its debut in the spotlights, perched 125 feet above the ground on top of a rocket that soon will blast it into space.

A few hours later, I am standing with a flock of reporters and photographers that has gathered on a hill within sight of Swift—the closest viewing point—waiting to witness and chronicle its last moments on Earth. Some of the scientists and engineers who created Swift wait, as well, on the surf line at their Cocoa Beach hotels and on observation bleachers at the Kennedy Space Center. Among them is Penn State's David Burrows, who leads the team that designed, built, and will operate one of Swift's three telescopes, an x-ray telescope nicknamed XRT.

"You can't ask for much more excitement than launch day—except for the excitement of making new discoveries about our universe and the most powerful explosions that have happened here since its birth," Burrows says. He and the other Swift scientists expect to be making such discoveries with Swift every other day or so for the next two to eight years.

"I have been waiting for this day for six years, since NASA Goddard invited Penn State to be the major university partner on the international team that was preparing the proposal to build Swift," Burrows says. Penn State played a leading role in building two of Swift's three telescopes, and Penn State will play a leading role in Swift's operation by controlling the observatory from the Mission Operations Center near the University Park campus. But right now all the action is at Launch Complex 17 where, after months of delays caused by technical difficulties and a series of what NASA calls "weather violations," which included three massive hurricanes, Swift's launch countdown has sped surprisingly smoothly to the moment of 3, 2, 1, liftoff!

woman outside in field waving to camera
Provided by Barbara Kennedy

Barbara Kennedy at reporters' viewing site

On the reporters' hill, our bodies pulse and our ears pound as we are hit with blast waves from the percussive pillow of fire that is pushing Swift straight up into the air. At first, Swift seems to hover before our eyes, but as we watch in awe it thrusts and thunders away, leaving behind a squiggly white signature on the blazing blue sky.

I am standing between Alan Wells, the lead scientist for Swift's partner institutions in the United Kingdom, and Guido Chincarini, the lead scientist for Swift's partners in Italy. "This is absolutely wonderful," Chincarini says, "and the most wonderful thing is that we are here to see it!"

I pull myself away from the exuberant crowd on the reporters' hill and hop into my car to rendezvous with Burrows, who is racing—no faster than the legal speed limit, of course—from his Cocoa Beach hotel to Swift's launch-control room on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Hidden inside a corrugated-metal hanger, the control room with its rows of computer consoles and large wall-mounted monitors looks surprisingly like the ones for NASA's manned Apollo missions, which I grew up watching on television. We contribute to the explosion of cheers in the control room as we arrive just in time to see Swift separate from its launch rocket. "Take a good look," says Burrows as the satellite slowly fades away into the blackness of space, "because this is the last time anyone will see Swift ever again."

The milestone of separation is especially meaningful to Burrows, who less than a decade earlier was the principal investigator for the X-ray telescope on an observatory that was lost at just this point during its launch, when the rocket failed to separate from the satellite.

brown field and blue sky
Barbara Kennedy

NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building from across the Banana River

More cheers erupt from the control room minutes later, when the data projected on the wall show that Swift has unfolded the solar panels that will provide its power—the maneuver that engineers had ranked as the one most likely to fail. Only moments later—perhaps the most emotional moment for the Penn Staters in the room—Burrows points exuberantly to data on the wall that show Swift is communicating with the Mission Operations Center at Penn State for the first time.

With the most important launch milestones successfully achieved, the Swift team members from Penn State hurriedly begin the process of shutting down their computers and packing up their equipment for shipment back to University Park. There, they are prepared to face the "weather violations" typical of Central Pennsylvania in exchange for the extraordinary opportunity to be part of the team that will make new discoveries about the universe throughout Swift's years in orbit.

Last Updated January 20, 2005